This year, Disney’s first feature-length animated movie “Snow White” turns 75. What you might not realize is that the lovely, graceful, modest and beautifully-mannered young Disney Princess was based on a live model: Marge Champion — and this year, Marge Champion celebrates a different milestone. She turns 94.
“Marge Champion” is an instantly recognizable name to anyone who knows classic musical-comedy cinema. In the 40s and 50s she and her husband/dance partner Gower Champion were stars of the silver screen and then of their own television show. Marge’s earliest stint working for a movie studio, however, was as the live model for Snow White at Hyperion Studios with Walt Disney. Marge was 13 when she auditioned for the role, 14 when she was officially cast, and then worked on and off for two years dancing the role, and acting out Snow White’s emotive facial expressions and expressive body movements for the Disney animation team.
The voice for Snow White had been recorded earlier by Adriana Caselotti. Marge, then Marge Belcher, had to lip-sync to Caselotti’s voice, and became known on the set by fun-loving animators as “Margie Anabelchelatti.”
I interviewed Marge at her home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where nearby at the Norman Rockwell Museum, a show of original Snow White drawings (curated by the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco) is on exhibit this summer.
How did it come to be that young Marge’s likeness was transformed into one of the most enduring characters in cinematic history?
Marge grew up daughter of Ernest Belcher, who at that time owned and taught at the preeminent dance school to the stars. Marge studied dance daily with her dad from about age 6, and by age 12 was working as his assistant and demonstrator for such stars as Shirley Temple. Ernest Belcher happened to be friends with Walt Disney, but that didn’t mean Marge was handed the role. She had to audition and beat out some 200 other girls, many of whom were also students at her father’s school.
“None of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for my father,” says Marge. “My father was a great influence in my life.”
“I think it was due to the manners my father taught me,” continues Marge, that I made such an impression on Walt, because manners were very important to him as well. My father always taught me to curtsey, to look people in the eye. When someone asked me how I was doing, I was not to answer fine thanks’ but nicely, thank you.’ When I wanted to be excused from the dinner table, I was taught to say I’ve had an elegant sufficiency, thank you. May I please be excused?’ These courtesies were important to my father. He was a true English gentleman.”
Circumstances were such that Marge and younger brother Richard Eman, (Dick,) grew up primarily with their father Ernest. Their mother was away for six full years in New York City being a stage mom to their older half sister Lina Basquette (known as Little Lina). Later, depression plagued their mother, and so even after her return, Ernest was the dominant parental figure in Marge’s life. Marge spent so much time at her father’s side as a young child, she says, that she actually spoke with an English accent until she began school.
Ernest Belcher’s dance school in Hollywood trained not only the top musical-comedy movie stars at the time, but also renowned prima ballerinas and Broadway stars. He taught dance from 9am til 9pm 4 days a week, and 9 til 7 on Wednesdays. He lived and breathed dance, and by all accounts was a gregarious, funny, always theatrical man that everyone loved.
To Marge, her dad was her personal hero.
Marge grew up as “Daddy’s girl” at the dance studio. She says he called her “Dearie,” or “Pansy-face,” due to her “shoe-button eyes.”
Spending so much time with her little brother and father, an incredibly rare and special bond formed. The three of them would sleep every night on a sleeping porch in arid and hot Hollywood. She remembers her father being a wonderful cook, of never raising his voice, of his goofy and theatrical antics, of gardening together on weekends. In the years her mother was away, Marge recalls scribbling notes to her even before she could read and write — her dad would translate the scribbles into English and they would put them in the mail.
“My closeness with my father was well-earned by both of us, due to the circumstances we dealt with,” says Marge. “And one of my favorite memories was how much my father loved Gower. Gower and I were classmates at school. My father saw him dance at our 9th grade assembly and realized his talent. He found his mother, and said that in order for Gower to fulfill his star quality he needed formal training. Gower’s mother was a single mother, and so my father gave Gower a full scholarship.”
Marge, at almost 94 years of age, almost glows as she talks about these men and leafs through photo albums. She still describes Gower as “the love of her life,” and has a pure and whole-hearted affection for the memory of her own father. “I can still remember small things about my father. I remember the smell of his handkerchief when he would wipe my eyes as a young girl, the way he always called Gower boy’ — even when he wasn’t a boy anymore but a 40 year old man. I remember what a good cook my father was, and the way he always made me laugh. He truly loved children. He was a beautiful man.”
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic, curated by the Walt Disney Family Museum, is on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA, June 8, 2013 through October 27, 2013. For more information, click here.